Written by Julia Gorski
On November 19, 2018, the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari to a 6th Amendment Confrontation Clause issue involving the use of a toxicology report in a drunk driving case. In a four-page dissent, Justice Neil Gorsuch, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, criticized the Court for not hearing the appeal.
Background: Stuart v. Alabama
The 6th Amendment Confrontation Clause provides that a person accused of a crime has the right to confront a witness against him or her in a criminal action. The purpose of the clause is to prevent the defendant from being convicted of a crime without first giving the defendant an opportunity to face his or her accusers and test their honesty and truthfulness in front of the jury.
In the case seeking review, Stuart v. Alabama, the defendant, Vanessa Stuart, was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and driving under the influence after causing a fatal car accident. At Stuart’s trial, the state introduced toxicology reports containing estimates of her blood alcohol content at the time of the accident. The reports were prepared and signed by forensic scientist Belicia Sutton. Sutton did not testify at trial and Stuart was not given an opportunity to cross-examine her before trial. Rather, the reports were introduced through the testimony of Jason Hudson, chief of the Department of Forensic Sciences, who was not present when Stuart’s blood was handled. Stuart objected to the introduction of the toxicology reports as evidence absent Sutton’s testimony, claiming it violated her right to confrontation. However, the reports were admitted, and Stuart was ultimately convicted.
On appeal, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction, holding that Hudson’s presence at trial was sufficient under the Confrontation Clause. Stuart sought review from the United States Supreme Court. The issue on appeal was whether the Court of Appeal’s decision was consistent with Bullcoming v. New Mexico, where the Supreme Court held that introducing a lab report at trial without testimony from the individual who prepared the report violates the Confrontation Clause. The Court denied hearing the case.
Gorsuch and Sotomayor Dissent
In his four-page dissent, Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Sotomayor, criticized the Court in denying certiorari. Referring to the Constitution’s promise that an individual has the right to confront his or her accuser, Gorsuch wrote:
That promise was broken here. To prove Vanessa Stuart was driving under the influence, the State of Alabama introduced in evidence the results of a blood-alcohol test conducted hours after her arrest. But the State refused to bring to the stand the analyst who performed the test. Instead, the State called a different analyst. Using the results of the test after her arrest and the rate at which alcohol is metabolized, this analyst sought to estimate for the jury Ms. Stuart’s blood-alcohol level hours earlier when she was driving. Through these steps, the State effectively denied Ms. Stuart the chance to confront the witness who supplied a foundational piece of evidence in her conviction. The engine of cross-examination was left unengaged, and the Sixth Amendment was violated.
Justice Gorsuch’s frustration with the court is attributable to the last Supreme Court decision in this area of the law in 2012, Williams v. Illinois. Similar to Stuart v. Alabama, the issue in Williams was whether the testimony of an expert witness that is based on a test the expert did not personally perform violates the Confrontation Clause. There was no clear majority ruling, but four separate opinions were written by Justice Samuel Alito, Justice John Roberts, Justice Anthony Kennedy, and Justice Stephen Breyer. The four-justice plurality created confusion among lower courts attempting to abide by the Court’s ruling. Justice Gorsuch saw Stuart v. Alabama as a chance for the Court to clarify this issue, concluding his dissent with, “I believe we owe lower courts struggling to abide our holdings more clarity than we have afforded them in this area.”
Forensic evidence plays a decisive role in today’s trials. Introducing lab reports without accompanying testimony from the individual who actually prepared and signed the report can be problematic for a defendant when considering the issues facing the forensic science community today. A large portion of forensic analysis is subjective, and there are no national uniform standards or certifications regarding subjective analysis. Consequently, great fragmentation exists among practices across states, counties, and within laboratories themselves. One scientist can test evidence and come to a different conclusion than another scientist testing the same evidence. One scientist’s error or threat of bias will not be the same as another’s. In light of the foregoing, lower courts must use great caution in admission of forensic evidence at trial.
While the Court’s denial of certiorari in Stuart v. Alabama does not effectively aid lower courts struggling to abide by the Court’s holding in Williams, Justice Gorsuch’s dissent is a noteworthy view of a new Justice on the Confrontation Clause and highlights the confusion created by the Supreme Court in this area of the law.
Brief of Respondent in Opposition to Petition for Writ of Certiorari, Stuart v. Alabama, 586 U.S. ___ (2018) (No. 17-1676), 2018 WL 3855210.
Bullcoming. v. New Mexico, 564 U.S. 647 (2011).
COMM. ON IDENTIFYING THE NEEDS OF THE FORENSIC SCIS. CMTY ET AL., STRENGTHENING FORENSIC SCIENCE IN THE UNITED STATES: A PATH FORWARD (Nat’l Acads. Press 2009).
Legal Info. Inst., Right to confront witness (last visited Nov. 27, 2018).
Petition for Writ of Certiorari, Stuart v. Alabama, 586 U.S. ___ (2018) (No. 17-1676), 2018 WL 3032904.
Stuart v. Alabama, 586 U.S. ___ (2018).
Williams v. Illinois, 567 U.S. 50 (2012).
Photo courtesy of James Publishing.